Amos - Introduction
The book of Amos is a compilation of sayings attributed to the prophet Amos, who was active in the first half of the eighth century BCE, during the long and peaceful reign of Jeroboam II (788–747; Am 1.1 ). In this period, Israel attained a height of territorial expansion and national prosperity never again reached. At the same time, this prosperity led to gross inequities between urban elites and the poor. Through manipulation of debt and credit, wealthy landowners amassed capital and estates at the expense of small farmers. The smallest debt served as the thin end of a wedge that lenders could use to separate farmers from their patrimonial farms and personal liberty.
Into this scene stepped Amos, a native of Tekoa, a small village in Judah, and himself a farmer and herder, probably during the decade 760–750 BCE. Amos denounced the society of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in vivid language, bitterly describing the decadent opulence, immorality, and smug piety of elites who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” ( 2.7 ). Amos's program, in contrast, called for “justice” and “righteousness” ( 5.7,24; 6.12 ), terms that connote social equality and concern for the disadvantaged (Isa 5.7; Mic 6.8 ).
Against the background of Israelite tradition about “the Day of the LORD,” occasions celebrated from the past and eagerly anticipated in the future when the LORD dramatically intervenes in human affairs, Amos announced that such a day was imminent. This time, however, the fortified palaces and temples of Israel would be leveled along with those of Israel's rival nations ( 1.3–2.3 ) when God executed the divine version of “justice and righteousness.” Israel's covenant with God ( 3.2 ) did not absolve it from this ethical standard, which Amos, in so many words, universalized ( 9.7–8 ). Though Amos affirmed the special quality of God's relationship with Israel ( 9.8 ), he stressed that it entailed a special ethical responsibility ( 3.1 ). The agent of this divine punishment would be the Assyrian army (Isa 10.5–11 ). The frequent references to exile in Amos (e.g., 3.11; 6.7; 7.17 ) reflect a grim threat, the Assyrian imperial practice of deporting and transplanting conquered peoples.
The book contains a variety of material. Some of Amos's sayings are presented as messenger speeches (“thus says the LORD”), others as visions (“This is what the LORD showed me”), especially in chs 7–9 . Amos, in a legal style of indictment followed by punishment (“therefore‐…”), announced judgments (e.g., 1.3–2.16 ), delivered funeral orations (e.g., 5.1–2 ), and exhorted (e.g., 5.6 ). He rarely encouraged (but see 9.11–15 and the notes there). In addition to the above types of prophetic sayings, the book contains three fragments from a hymn ( 4.13; 5.8–9; 9.5–6 ) and one narrative, about Amos's encounter with Amaziah, priest of the Northern Kingdom's royal sanctuary at Bethel ( 7.10–17 ).
That narrative and the superscription ( 1.1 ) yield the only portrait of the prophet. A native of the Southern Kingdom of Judah who raised livestock and tended fruit trees, Amos prophesied to and in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. At Bethel ( 7.13 ) his bitter invective, voiced as divine word (“I hate, I despise your festivals,” 5.21 ) no doubt scandalized pilgrims from Samaria, capital of the Northern Kingdom. His confrontation with Amaziah ( 7.10–17 ) remains one of the unforgettable scenes in biblical prophecy. Expelled from the royal sanctuary and commanded not to prophesy there again, Amos perhaps returned to Judah where he, or like‐minded scribes, wrote down the essence of his public preaching in substantially its present form.
Amos's prophetic career was roughly contemporaneous with that of Hosea, though Amos probably preceded him. Chronologically, then, Amos inaugurated the era of classical prophecy. In some ancient manuscript traditions (the Septuagint [LXX], the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), the book of Amos directly follows Hosea. The traditional arrangement of the Book of the Twelve, however, is based not solely on chronology but often on specific verbal similarities that link the end of one book to the beginning of the next. Amos is linked to its predecessor Joel by identical phrases (see Joel 3.16a and Am 1.2a ) and to its successor Obadiah by a similar subject (Edom in Am 9.12 and in Ob 1 ).
The book of Amos has three major parts: Chs 1–2 are presented as a single speech, an ethical tour of the region from the divine perspective, which climaxes in judgment on Israel itself; chs 3–6 are the least unified section, a collection of short prophetic sayings indicting Israel for sin and injustice; chs 7–9 contain the visions of Amos, as well as the Amaziah narrative ( 7.10–17 ) and a final speech of comfort ( 9.11–15 ) addressed not to Israel but to Judah. The best approach for readers is to follow the sequence of the book itself.
The book of Amos begins and ends with references to an earthquake ( 1.1 and the images of shaking in 9.1–9 ). We do not know its exact year (760 has been proposed), but there is archaeological evidence of a catastrophe. Did this earthquake, so severe that it was recalled centuries later (Zech 14.5 ), offer cosmic validation of Amos's preaching? We cannot know. Still, even today we feel the aftershocks of Amos, the first in a brilliant succession of biblical prophets whose words, now preserved in written form, have left their indelible stamp on later thought about God and human history.